Letter from Siem Reap – Videos of Cambodia’s mud farmers go viral on YouTube (a Straits Times special report)

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SIEM REAP: The villager in front of me stoops slightly, his brow furrowed to protect deep-set eyes. It’s the first time we’ve met, but I recognize him immediately.

He is the face of the Building Technology YouTube channel. He’s the nameless, shirtless craftsman who digs 10-foot-deep basements and sculpts elaborate furniture and wall displays out of dried mud.

These time-lapse videos, which usually show two builders working together, have been viewed up to 86 million times since they were released over three years ago.

The channel has 1.92 million subscribers. Some rave about the skill of these master builders, whose creations have a vaguely European neoclassical flair yet carry a Cambodian aesthetic. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, the videos drew tourists who ventured into the forests outside the city of Siem Reap in search of these mud villas.

Build for YouTube

One of the builders is Mr Tim Vouch, 53, a builder from the village of Tatoak Kandal, about an hour’s drive from town. He’s confused by the attention from around the world.

“I’m old,” he tells the Sunday Times. “I never thought that if millions of people watched me, I would appear in a video and become famous.”

But he’s not a craftsman – he learned clay construction as part of his job. “In my normal life, I just put cement and build a wall,” he says. “Building this YouTube house is much more difficult.”

Today, Mr. Vouch earns 30,000 riel (S$10.30) as a construction worker. Three years ago he and his villager Chhoeurn Cheav, a farm hand, were offered a daily fee of 25,000 riel and a free lunch to work on these mud houses. You signed up immediately.

“We didn’t ask any questions. We didn’t know anything about YouTube,” says Mr. Vouch, who just reveled in the idea of ​​working in the woods near his home instead of commuting into town.

The scaled down castle built entirely by hand using primitive tools in a community forest reserve in Siem Reap. – Phnom Penh Post/ANN

At first they were perplexed that they had no modern machines at their disposal. They used shovels and chisels to dig cellars and form clay chambers. To transport the excavated earth, they stretched straw baskets onto shoulder poles. In his first month on the job, Mr. Vouch would get all sorts of aches and pains.

It reminded them of the “Pol Pot days,” they say with a smile. The Khmer Rouge leader oversaw a regime that emptied Cambodia’s cities in the 1970s to create an agricultural utopia, leading to mass starvation and disease.

When working on these mud houses, the workers also had to act in front of the camera. They worked in teams of more than two people, but “when the directors had to film us, they told some workers to get out of the frame,” says Vouch.

The content on the Building Technology channel belongs to a genre of survival-style videos that have built a large following over the last few years. Set in the jungle, they feature characters using materials found in nature to build shelters, craft tools, and sometimes cook. Dialogue is sparse or non-existent. Instead, viewers can watch the details of the craft unfold from start to finish.

Primitive Technology, a YouTube channel founded in 2015 by Mr. John Plant from Australia, is widely recognized as a pioneer of this genre. It has attracted 10.4 million subscribers and spawned many similar productions that carry the “Primitive” label.

While Mr. Plant is both owner and subject of Primitive Technology, many other channels of ownership and control are more opaque.

Descriptions in Building Technology’s videos often use a first-person voice and say, for example, “I built my private king-size bed room.” But the channel is actually owned by Cambodian web developer Tann Moly and his brother-in-law, Peanh Setha, who is a teacher.

YouTuber Dreams

In an interview with ST at his home in Siem Reap, Mr. Moly says they invested US$5,000 (S$6,890) in production over the first five months of their project.

“I love YouTube, I wanted to be a YouTuber,” he says. “To achieve that, we decided on a project that doesn’t require a lot of money.”

They hired workers from Tatoak Kandal village because it was near a jungle. “The standard of living there is not good and the people are poor. So we wanted to give them jobs,” he says.

Not having a design background, they drew inspiration from images they scoured the internet. Mr. Moly showed the construction workers his sketches on paper.

The creations soon attracted the attention of government officials, who urged them to build a theme park that would increase income in the district.

The brothers-in-law grew their team from three to 13 construction workers and spent US$2,000 (S$2,772) each month. They crafted mud penguins and Angry Birds video game characters in anticipation of welcoming school children to the holidays. They planned to put up signs and build fences and shelters for these adobe structures.

Surrounded by wilderness, this room with luxurious furniture made of mud, clay and earth awaits final touches and will open to visitors later.  - Phnom Penh Post/ANNSurrounded by wilderness, this room with luxurious furniture made of mud, clay and earth awaits final touches and will open to visitors later. – Phnom Penh Post/ANN

But without financial support from the government, they could not continue. “We tried to rely on our own money, but we didn’t have enough money,” says Mr. Moly.

Also, building adobe houses for theme parks required sturdier structures, and that took twice as long. It meant they couldn’t upload content fast enough to keep viewers engaged when their videos were trending online, he adds.

The couple have decided to focus on creating content for YouTube for now. Existing structures already immortalized online will be left to the elements, says Mr. Moly.

When the Sunday Times visited the site in Chan Sar township last month, sections of armchairs and walls had broken off, while rain had washed away parts of the stairs, which were beginning to resemble slopes.

Mr Moly declines to reveal how much he makes from the channel but says it’s enough to support his family and make more videos.

Questions about how profits from online content are distributed tend to be tricky.

dr Crystal Abidin, a digital anthropologist from Curtin University, says: “Visibility on social media is not always related to feasibility or commercial potential, which we always like to summarize – views equal ads equal money. But we don’t really question (who is the) channel owner, channel manager, channel actor.”

dr Natalie Pang, a lecturer in the Department of Communications and New Media at the National University of Singapore, says it’s important for content creators to find ways to give back to the community when they benefit from their subjects.

Mr Moly says he gave new mobile phones to construction workers and helped some who got into trouble with loan sharks.

While both Mr. Vouch and Mr. Cheav have watched some of their viral videos on YouTube, they rarely venture onto the platform these days. Mobile internet connections are a problem.

Mr. Vouch remains proud of his creations. “Even though the carvings may one day be gone, images of this work – done by the older generation – will remain in the hearts of the next generation,” he says.

Mr. Cheav, who now fishes and harvests cashews to make ends meet, is excited to start work on his next mud villa.

“I didn’t know there was money to be made from video,” he says. “I’m just a humble person hired by someone to do a job.”

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